Sunday, September 27, 2009

Access To The Decision Makers

In my last post Lessons Learned, I responded to the plight of a college professor and her class regarding a fundraising event for their local public library. The library board members said they loved the plan, but chose to delay the event until after the end of the semester, making it impractical for the class to actually manage it. While the class will lose out on the experience of running the event, I pointed out that they learned a great deal more than any of them anticipated. Sometimes lessons learned are more valuable than the lessons intended.

Of the ten points I offered in my post, I'd like to focus on one of them that is common in the PR business. I pointed out to the students, "you initially spoke to the library director and PR person, yet you presented and needed approval from the board." Sound familiar?

Direct access to the decision makers can be among the biggest obstacles a PR firm can face in getting a proposal of any kind approved. While your contacts may be acting in good faith and "think" they know what the decision makers really want, they miss the mark all too often. Which means when you present to the decision makers themselves, you're likely to miss the mark as well. This commonly takes two forms: A) You learn that what's motivating the need for action is not what it was portrayed to be; and B) you discover that the definition of success is different from what you were told (often because you were not clear or you were misled about the motivation).

So what's a PR person to do?

First, do whatever you can to gain access to the decision makers. In some situations this can be difficult if not impossible. I get that. I've been there many times. But often, you just have to ask and be creative in making your case. Usually, face time with the decision maker is advantageous to everyone. You can also make the case that by getting the decision maker involved in the process early, you'll not only get helpful insights, but also enlist involvement which can increase the prospect of buy-in once you present your ideas.

Second, if decision maker access is not possible, try your best to get the answers to the questions of motivation and definition of success. Too often, it's not that you're misled, so much as you just didn't ask the direct questions.

Third, find out what arguments work best with the ultimate audience. For example, do you need to provide research data to make your case, or will anecdotal information be more effective?

Fourth, in lieu of a face-to-face meeting, ask whether there's an opportunity to test your thinking and gain input along the way in writing prior to a face-to-face presentation.

Fifth, during your face-to-face presentation with the decision makers, carefully set up the situation analysis that's driving the ideas you're about to present. Gauge your audience carefully to assure that the audience agrees with the platforms from which you are basing your thinking. If not, get clarity on what you perceive to be any misunderstandings before you say another word. Then adjust your remarks accordingly.

Finally, assume your audience will say YES to your ideas! This means you should send the message loud the clear that you're ready to hit the ground running. Offer next steps and/or as complete a time-line as practical for how you'll deliver on what you presented.

This is a part of our business that isn't easy, but it's also among the challenges that separate the great practitioners from average ones. Choose to be great and share your ideas for how to meet this challenge!

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Lessons Learned

A college professor sent an e-mail asking me to respond to a story reflecting a recent situation involving her public relations class and a client with whom the class was working pro bono. She shared her frustration and that of her class with this account of what happened:

I met with the client, the local public library director and PR person, this summer. They told me they wanted an event in November, fundraising because the system has lost so much government funding this year. Books and other materials are funded by the library's Foundation. The team did the research and came up with a chili cookoff downtown in November. They went to the foundation's board meeting, and the board said they didn't think there was enough time and they'd rather have it at the middle school anyway. They now want the event in March.

OK, fine. The problem is that the students are all graduating and won't be here to do the event. Instead of getting hands-on event planning experience, they're now looking at writing a plan and handing it over to the board in hopes that they'll implement it well. They are SO disappointed. They feel cheated because they did what they were asked and never had any idea that the board might totally change the plan in this way. I met with them yesterday and tried to explain that this is what happens with clients -- for example, they send out RFP asking for A,B,C, and then choose the agency who pitched D. Sometimes they don't know what they want until you give them something to look at.

Also, you should know that the board gave them a budget of $6,000 even though they only asked for $4,500 -- so clearly the client was NOT disappointed with their work. But the students are angry and disappointed and some said they don't even want to help the library anymore -- one asked if they could change clients! (Obviously I said no.) I tried to rally them by saying that they've been tested and have to rise to the challenge, but I don't know if it worked.

I don't want to embarrass the library or even necessarily have it directed at me/my team/university. I was just hoping you could write something that might help them understand their duty to the client (which is a little less obvious because they aren't being paid) and maybe even a little on the client's perspective.

I'm happy to respond and will do so based on the information provided in the story. First of all, I believe the lessons here are far more valuable and pervasive than what might have been gained from ordering plastic forks and napkins for a Chili Cook-off. As a professor you should be grateful and as students you learned more than you realize. Consider this:

  1. Based on what's stated here, you offered the board a single idea (risky) - the chili cook-off. Don't assume that because they said they liked it, that they really liked it. You never know.
  2. The argument that there wasn't enough time to pull it off could have been rectified by offering a detailed time-line, dating backwards from the event date demonstrating that it was well within reason to hold the event in November. My guess is that because you didn't provide it, you created an opening for your client to delay it, and if you did offer a time-line, then they were either not being straight with you (see above) or they thought your time-line was unrealistic.
  3. The suggested change of venue to the middle school is suspect on a number of levels.
  4. You stated: You should know that the board gave them a budget of $6,000 even though they only asked for $4,500 -- so clearly the client was NOT disappointed with their work. I'll admit to not following the logic here. Price and the quality of the work are entirely separate issues.
  5. Not sure why you'd come in with a budget of $4,500 when given a budget of $6,000. In the case of an event, that doesn't make sense. You should have come up with some creative ways to use that $1,500 to create something more special that would have drawn bigger crowds/raised more money and, more importantly, inspired the board to scream YES, YES to your idea. (And if I misinterpreted this and you're saying you asked for $4,500 to pull off the event, and then the board gave you $6,000, I ask what kind of board would do something like that when it's trying to raise money for books in the absence of a killer idea that would justify the additional budget?)
  6. Not to be harsh or to minimize the contribution you were making here, but the responsibility of the board is to serve the library not your class.
  7. Clients can, will, and have every right to change their minds about what they want to do at any time and for any reason. Such an occurrence will happen countless times during the course of one's PR career. Get use to it.
  8. Another important dynamic to consider is you initially spoke to the library director and PR person, yet you presented and needed approval from the board. Hard to know who the real culprit is here. Be careful of this dynamic in working with future clients!
  9. Rework the plan and add a line item for how to spend that $1,500 in an innovative way. It will be a great way to get your class to take the plan to the next level.
  10. Thank your lucky stars you don't actually have to manage the event. If you have these kinds of problems now, there's a 95% chance that they just get worse. Happily hand them the plan!

Tell your students from me: Welcome to the wonderful world of public relations!

Thank you for sharing your story!

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

How Smart Is Your Team?

If you lead a professional services organization of any kind, your team is continually challenged to serve a diverse group of clients across a broad range of industries. So when it comes to assessing the intellectual capacity of your employees to meet that challenge, it may not boil down to "how smart" so much as "how are they smart?" This is what the Accelerated Learning Network says as it spreads the word of noted Harvard Professor Howard Gardner.

Professor Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, developed in the early '80s, states that unlike IQ which relies on a single metric, people are intelligent in different ways. A 1998 article in Education World described Gardner's 7 original intelligences this way:
  • Linguistic intelligence: a sensitivity to the meaning and order of words.
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: ability in mathematics and other complex logical systems.
  • Musical intelligence: the ability to understand and create music. Musicians, composers and dancers show a heightened musical intelligence.
  • Spatial intelligence: the ability to "think in pictures," to perceive the visual world accurately, and recreate (or alter) it in the mind or on paper. Spatial intelligence is highly developed in artists, architects, designers and sculptors.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: the ability to use one's body in a skilled way, for self-expression or toward a goal. Mimes, dancers, basketball players, and actors are among those who display bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.
  • Interpersonal intelligence: an ability to perceive and understand other individuals -- their moods, desires, and motivations. Political and religious leaders, skilled parents and teachers, and therapists use this intelligence.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence: an understanding of one's own emotions. Some novelists and or counselors use their own experience to guide others.

Gardner has since identified an eighth intelligence called naturalist intelligence and has alluded to a ninth intelligence as existential intelligence, which he feels at the moment lacks the neurological evidence to be added to the list.

Gardner readily admits that we all intuitively understand this concept. When I was growing up I marveled at how Larry Bird could make sense out of chaos on the basketball court in a way others simply could not. It's what made him a basketball genius, yet he was hardly regarded as a classic intellectual. Gardner; however, took this beyond mere intuition and built a framework of intelligences and then conducted the requisite research to support his theory.

For a quick look at how MI compares with IQ, here's a short video that provides a bit more clarity:

Recognizing how people are smart and leveraging that intelligence for your organization can be a powerful tool for matching the right people with the right clients and challenges. What's more, as a leader and coach, you can more readily recognize people's strengths and build on them.

While many of you may have taken online IQ tests, try taking a free, self-scoring multiple intelligence test based on Howard Gardner's model. Even if you're not smarter than a fifth grader, take comfort that you likely possess your own brand of intelligence.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Managing Expectations

Managing expectations is one of those expressions to which we should pay more attention, but not in the way you might think. For most people in the professional services business, let's face it, managing expectations is code for lowering expectations. It's the time-honored practice of promising a Cadillac, but making sure the client is happy if you have to deliver the Chevy. The people who live this life of managing expectations bristle at the David Maister(s) and Marshall Goldsmith(s) of the world who have built their reputations on telling clients to pay only what their performance was worth, or nothing at all, if they don't meet or exceed expectations. But we'll save that for another time.

Fortunately, we're not headed down that road today. What I mean by managing expectations is managing our OWN expectations so they don't become obstacles to ourselves or to our clients. Ask yourself if you're the type of person who gets overly irritated when your 8:00 AM presentation starts a half-hour late. Or maybe you walk into an executive meeting assuming you're there to listen, only to be asked to "wing-it" to the leadership team. And God forbid, you learn that the plan for the day has been upended without your consent. Most of us run across hundreds of moments like this during the course of our careers. Today is as good a day as any to take stock of how you typically respond.

Your choices are simple: 1) Respond negatively by clinging to what was supposed to happen; or 2) Embrace what's about to happen. Your ability to manage your own expectations will indelibly shape the personal brand you share with your clients and co-workers. If you're rooted in what should have been, nobody misses that, and it does nothing but create additional stress for everyone.

Replace your negative reaction with the belief that you cannot control the past but you CAN positively shape the future. Try it the next time something doesn't meet your expectations!

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What's Your After Hours Message Say?

After a few days of Seeing Red Cars and imagining what it would be like to hit a hole-in-one at one of the most famous Par 3's in the world, I thought I'd shift from high intensity goal setting to the lighter side of client service.

In a perfect world, it would be tempting to record an after hours voice-mail message that while offering a broad range of service options, also captured the essence of the real world problems and unreasonable demands clients often impose upon their favorite account executives. Well if you're feeling brave and looking for a little inspiration, check out this public school voice recording. Is it real? Doesn't matter, it will give you plenty to think about the next time you update your voice-mail.


After you listen to the recording, hit the back button to return to this post and leave your comment or, if you like, a script for your firm's new after hours message!

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